4.29.2008

Changing gears, Obama denounces Wright

About 6 weeks after Reverend Wright made his first appearance in the presidential election and more than a month after his sweeping speech on race and class in which he refused to disown Wright, Obama changed gears today in a major press conference. Wright's return to the national stage over the week-end gave Obama the opening his campaign was apparently looking for to revisit the issue and take a much harder stance. Speaking to the white electorate of IN and NC, to white general-election voters and to Democratic superdelegates, Obama blasted Wright today. Reviewing Wright's most controversial remarks, Obama concluded: "They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced, and that’s what I’m doing very clearly and unequivocally here today."

Obama's tone today was deeply personal; he wanted to sound personally wounded, as if to convey a sense of deep betrayal. "The person that I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago," said Obama, explaining that he realized he needed to say something when he saw Wright's televised remarks yesterday. Since Wright did not say anything new this week-end that had not surfaced in videos in March, and since none of the items Obama listed today were novel revelations, what has changed? The implication in Obama's remarks is that he believed that the media was distorting Wright's remarks in March, taking soundbites out of context. Now that Wright repeated the same things in nationally televised appearances, Obama could no longer believe the remarks were taken out of context and he thus joined the chorus of those who profess themselves deeply offended by Wright. "His comments were not only divisive and destructive," Obama said, "but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church."

There is a very clear reason to believe that Obama is being sincere and that he actually does not agree with Wright: Obama has built his political career on the call for postpolitics and the need to transcend divisive issues like race. I myself do not agree with this message, so this is certainly not meant to be praise of Obama. But the point remains that the so-called "new generation" of black candidates have constructed their political identities in opposition to the "old generation" of leaders like Wright, whom many today believe are throwing the new generation under the bus.

As I explained yesterday, I myself remain fully unconvinced that Wright owes anything to Obama, nor that he has any duty to monitor what he is saying to suit the efforts of a Democratic candidate to get his party's nomination. But this fundamental gap between Obama and Wright was obvious in the Senator's comments today: "I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. That’s in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding to insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings. That’s who I am, that’s what I believe, and that’s what this campaign has been about."

Obama's condemnation of Wright will likely be the topic of discussion for the next few days and will shape the conversation going forward. The issue of Obama's electability is a major consideration superdelegates are weighing right now and that the Clinton campaign is questioning. How today's press conference is received, how it is covered could determine how much Obama has to keep talking about Wright in the coming months. Note that Obama is likely to go further in denouncing Wright now that he has opened the door to "disowning" him; if Wright remains on the national stage, it would give Obama further opportunities to address the issue and increasingly distance himself.

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